July 31, 2006

Beyond Alton Brown

by peterb

A while ago I posted my recipe for making yogurt, in which I slavishly imitated Alton Brown's stern admonition to not heat the milk past 170 degrees Fahrenheit.

Last week I made a bonehead mistake while making my regular batch of yogurt; I turned off the alarm on the probe thermometer, but forgot to turn off the heat on the milk. As a result, I ended up boiling my milk and cream mixture for about 15 minutes.

It turns out that this makes your yogurt a lot better.

It does this in two ways. First off, it denatures some of the proteins in the milk so you end up with a lot less whey to pour off. I suppose somewhere there is someone whose biggest thrill in life is drinkin' a nice tall cool glass of whey, but that someone is not me. The texture of the yogurt when you boil the milk is more uniform, and less gelatinous.

Second, you can tell by taste that the milk has been boiled. The finished yogurt acquired a very subtle, but noticeable, panna cotta flavor.

I tried to convince myself that having yogurt that tasted a little like panna cotta was somehow a bad thing. I failed. It's awesome.

So, less wastage, a nicer texture, and a more interesting taste. There is only one rational conclusion: when making yogurt, boil that milk, chowhounds!

Posted by peterb at 07:17 PM | Comments (5)

July 26, 2006

Flop Shot

by peterb

A few years ago I flew from New York to San Diego. I was travelling a lot for work at the time, and had amassed a Croesian number of frequent flyer miles, so I turned them in for an upgrade to first class. This resulted in my sitting next to a doctor, a surgeon. True to the stereotype, this surgeon loved golf.

How do I know that this surgeon loved golf? Did he tell me about how he loved to play golf? No, he did not tell me how he loved to play golf. Was he wearing golf shoes? No, he was not wearing golf shoes.

I know he loved golf because he had a golf magazine, and he read it for the entire flight. For the entire seven hours that we were in the air, il dottore read and re-read his golf magazine. He read it while eating. He read it during takeoff. He read it during landing. And for all I know, when he visited the lavatory and flipped the sign to OCCUPIED, he took that golf magazine and stuffed it down his pants, enjoying the rich, smooth feel of its turfy goodness.

So there are people in this world who really like golf. I'm not one of them. I played a little bit in high school, and more or less view golf as a way of ruining a perfectly good walk. The only thing more boring than playing golf, to me, is watching golf on TV. I am thoroughly convinced the only reason men love golf is because of the subtext of a man walking around in the woods trying to use his stick to get into 18 different holes.

And yet, and yet, I love golf videogames. They provide the illusion of skill without the effort, and combine all the good attributes of golf (nice scenery, clever physics problems, goofy clothing) while eliminating the bad attributes (having to talk to and be around golfers, the interminable waiting in between every shot, having to keep score yourself).

Which brings me to EA Sports' new game, Tiger Woods PGA Tour '06 for the Xbox 360. Which, not to put too fine a point on it, sucks.

Let me be more specific: when compared to the 2-year-old Xbox release Links 2004, Tiger Woods looks worse, plays worse, has a stupider user interface, and is less fun.

Golf videogames don't have to look stunning to be fun. Hot Shots Golf, for example, is a blast using only an iconic, cartoony style. Qualitatively, when static, the art in Tiger Woods looks about the same as that in Links 2004 But since it is OH MY GOD HIGH DEFINITION, they have (I assume) upscaled the texture maps for no particular reason. The upshot of this is that when a model with many polygons, such as a golfer, moves around their movement is jumpy and stuttery, and not at all smooth. So, you can play Links 2004, or you can spend $400 on your next-gen console to get something that looks worse.

If this were the only issue, I wouldn't even mention it. The user interaction model is enough to make a grown man weep. Here's a typical interaction with Tiger Woods PGA Tour '06: Please Press More Buttons, Thanks. Let's say I'm just finishing up a skill event. The game will display the score and ask me to press "A" to continue. I press "A".

  • "Would you like to save your progress, Jeremy Clarkson? YES/NO". I choose yes by pressing A.
  • "Searching....Player name Jeremy Clarkson, XBOX 360 Hard Drive. Save here? YES/NO". I choose yes by pressing A.
  • "Are you SURE you want to overwrite this file? YES/NO". The default is no, so I have to move the cursor and then press A.

Now, after that I used some skill points to increase my putting skill. I navigated to a menu and spent the points. That took about 3 seconds. And when I left that menu.... "Would you like to save your progress, Jeremy Clarkson? YES/NO". And then I shot myself.

The interface on the course isn't too terrible. I generally think that Links had a slightly better UI interaction, but not so that you would make the decision for one or another based solely on that. The one in-game UIism that doesn't work well is the one that lets you steer the ball after you hit it.

Oh, didn't I mention? You can steer the ball after you hit it. Did you ever go bowling with a group of 8 year olds? They will roll the ball down the lane, and as it heads toward the right gutter they will lean their bodies and twist left, trying to make the ball go left through sheer willpower. Apparently, Tiger Woods PGA Tour '06 was made for these people. This is so stupid that it sort of leaves me wondering why they didn't just go whole hog and give the player a "shotgun mode" where you can snipe other players' balls out of the air. That has as much to do with golf as steering balls after they've left your club.

As with all of EA Sports' recent sports/RPG hybrids, you are given detailed, precise control over the appearance of your avatar. You can apply all sorts of fine bone structure and facial details giving the character whatever appearance you desire, as long as they end up looking like a vaguely halfwitted mentally-impaired troll.

The presentation of the game, which is intended to mimic a TV broadcast, is subtly wrong, and offputting. The announcers are sarcastic and biting in response to poor play in ways that ring false.

The game is, in short, an embarassment from top to bottom. This is the second EA Sports game I've reviewed this year that was in this sort of condition (you'll read my review of NFL Head Coach in the upcoming issue of played.todeath magazine), and it has me more than a little worried. Something is amiss in Redwood City, and it doesn't look easy to fix.

Even golfers deserve better than this.

Posted by peterb at 10:23 PM | Comments (3)

July 25, 2006

Small Details

by psu

Today I am happy because I can again use a utility that I had been deprived of for the last few months. Liteswitch X has always been a fixture on my Macs. Originally, it provided features in a keyboard app switcher that the Dock did not. Later, I kept using it just because I was used to it. But I stopped using it when I got an Intel Mac because there was no Universal version of the Preferences panel, so I had to wean myself off of the tool.

Liteswitch does three things that I like that the native switcher does not do:

1. To move backward in the icon list, you only have to hit cmd-shift, not cmd-shift-tab or cmd-arrow. I find this convenient.

2. It has a quick key to force-kill any running app (cmd-f-f).

3. It provides custom window layering modes. The one I like brings all the windows of an application forward if I bring any of its windows forward.

I thought I would miss all three of these things, but it wasn't too bad. The native app switcher is really not that different from LiteSwitch. I ended up really missing the last item on the list though.

With the normal Dock, if I switch to an app using cmd-tab, all of the application windows come forward. But if I pick the application in any other way, I have to tediously find all of the other application windows in order to see them. The most glaring problem here is that ExposÚ does not bring the all of the application windows forward, only the one I picked.

I found this single small detail to bother me tremendously in my day to day work. I must have spent and extra ten minutes each day bringing windows forward that used to be there as if by magic.

Now my life is back to normal. It's good to not have to think about these small details.

Posted by psu at 06:23 PM | Comments (7)

July 20, 2006

Going Solo

by psu

Yesterday Floyd Landis was cooked. 10K from the top of the last climb, he looked up the road completely helpless as the group he was riding in rode away from him. You could see in his face and his body that he had no way to follow, no energy left in his legs. The bike practically stood still. He lost 10 minutes in those last 10K, and, it seemed, the Tour.

Today Floyd Landis rode away from the whole race and stayed away for 125Km. At the end of the day, he had regained almost all the time he lost yesterday. I think it's the most amazing thing I've seen in the Tour since I started paying attention to the race 15 years ago, and not only because Floyd was completely cooked yesterday.

Modern bike racing, especially in the Tour de France is dominated by team tactics that allow for great individual performances. The tactics are generally defensive, and designed to conserve the energy of the best riders so that they can win the race in the final climb or the final time trial. What you never see, or at least I've never seen, is a rider who can contend for the GC riding away from the Peloton at the start of the day and staying there. The teams always work to bring him back, because the defensive tactics dictate that one must never lose time. The result is that long solo wins tend to only be given to riders who can't possibly take back enough time to threaten in the GC.

Against this backdrop, what Landis did today is even more amazing. He rode away from everyone, and they couldn't do a thing about it. The Peloton which had used those same team tactics to crush him so badly yesterday was utterly helpless to stop him today. So, for one glorious day in the mountains, cycling was dominated by an individual performance, not defensive team tactics.

I remember reading a story about Eddy Merckx, the great Belgian bike rider who won every race there was to win at least twice. In the story, Eddy reminisces over a photograph taken of him in a stage of the Tour. He is riding away from everyone at the beginning of a hard mountain stage, and presumably taking huge time on the way to winning the race. "Boy was that fun", he says, as if he would never witness anything like that again.

Until today.

Posted by psu at 10:06 PM | Comments (2)

July 19, 2006

Secrets of Da Vinci

by peterb

Most games are mediocre.

This isn't, I think, a huge surprise to anyone, but it does at least offer one great hope: that you'll start playing a game and find that it's better than you expected it to be. This happened to me recently with Secrets of Da Vinci: The Forbidden Manuscript. Not to be confused with the book, movie, and game The Da Vinci Code.

As I believe I've let slip before, I'm a sucker for the Myst series of games. Da Vinci is very Myst-like in interface and presentation, with elements of the old LucasArts adventures in the way you interact with objects.

One problem I've always had with Myst and its ilk is just how abstract the puzzles are. "Pressing this button causes these oblong shapes to roll down a tube and fly into the air. If you've aligned these Three Mysterious Dials just right, the oblongs will smash against the Big Machine With The Levers. If you had previously set the levers right, the Big Machine With The Levers will let out a blast of steam. That will disturb the nest of pterodactyls who live in the Big Stripey Rock Thing, who will fly out and accidentally trigger the Blue Glowy Thing That I Guess Must Be A Big Stripey Rock Thing Key, which causes the Big Stripey Rock Thing to open, revealing the next world.

Yes, I realize that the reason the puzzles in this sort of game are this way is because figuring out what these mysterious things are is as much fun as figuring out how to advance in the game. And when it's done well, it's great: mysterious, enigmatic, yet compelling. But sometimes, when done poorly, "mysterious and enigmatic" isn't compelling, it's just pretentious and irritating.

The puzzles in Secrets of Da Vinci, contrariwise, are refreshingly concrete, while still being challenging. To take just one example, you find a metal plate, and a printing press, but no paper or ink. So, you need to make paper. Also, ink. As well as figuring out, along the way, how to repair and operate a watermill and a printing press.

All of this takes place in a well-fleshed out storyline: it is shortly after Leonardo Da Vinci has died. You're a disgraced and discharged apprentice of Count Francesco Melzi, who has been hired by an anonymous benefactor. He has sent you to Da Vinci's chateau, Clos LucÚ in Amboise, France, shortly after his death. Your mission is to find Da Vinci's notebooks. Seducing the Countess along the way is strongly encouraged.

Secrets of Da Vinci was originally a European game, and there are a few very small localization bugs. But they're truly minor. The puzzles are engaging, clever, plausible, and the subject matter is entrancing. The exterior of the mansion is that of Clos LucÚ; I can't say how authentic the interiors are, but they certainly feel right.

As your character progresses through the game you will make choices that will influence your moral standing. Your morality, in turn, will allow or disallow certain other actions. This adds a little more depth to a game which, if it simply had the puzzles, plot, and scripting that it already had, was already quite deep.

I didn't seek out this game. It came to me. But I like it a lot, and I'd recommend it to anyone who has been wondering "where have all the good adventure games gone?"

The game is published by Tri-Synergy, and is Windows-only. It retails for $29.99, and is available from Amazon.com for a bit less. Disclosure statement: the publisher graciously provided me with a review copy of this game.

Posted by peterb at 08:39 PM | Comments (3)

July 18, 2006

A Few Old Games

by psu

For the last couple of weeks, my attention deficit disorder led me to play some games which I had collected but not yet finished. When this happens, I typically pick up Zelda: Wind Waker, spend half an hour scanning a walkthrough to figure out where I left off, and then spend another hour re-learning all the game's little control quirks.

At this point, I sail around a bit, make some progress in the game, sail around some more, and then eventually get stuck in a dungeon. After a few more hours of running around and watching that little semi-retarded boy jump at the wrong time and in the wrong direction over and over again, I give it up and go and play Ratchet and Clank: Going Commando.

Ratchet is different from Zelda. It's easy to pick up again. I don't need to read the walkthrough to figure out where I am. I don't need to sail around for hours to find the next task to perform. You pretty much just pick up the game, run around and blow stuff up. The only controls that don't really work well are the flying and gliding. Everything else is tight and responsive. No retarded jumps into the lava. No tedious first person targeting with the grapping hook swingy thing.

I had slowly worked my way to the later stages of the game, when it got harder and more frustrating. Luckily I was always able to bail myself out by buying more stuff. This is an important lesson. You should always be able to win a game by using money.

The final Boss was even cute, and not that hard. Just how I like it.

With Ratchet finished, I looked around for more stuff to beat up. On the DS, I had started Castlevania and it is sort of fun, but full of tedious backtracking and stupid save rooms. Since that's not enough punishment for me, decided to pick up Viewtiful Joe again.

Viewtiful Joe is the embodiment of frustration. It has a flashy visual look that you either like or hate. I sort of like it. It is an interesting twist on the 2-d beat-em-up game since the game's space is 2-d but it is rendered using a 3-d engine. Once you get all the special powers, the combat flows with a pleasing rhythm. You enter an area and methodically pulverize your enemies into little piles of money.

Unfortunately, the game combines these virtues with a pair of crippling flaws. First, the puzzles make no sense. You can read the walkthrough and do what the instructions say, but they still make no sense. Most often, they depend on you randomly stabbing at the controls until the button that is normally used to (say) make the world slow down suddenly becomes the secret trigger to make you fly through the air on a jet-powered bus. Other times it just seems impossible to get from point A to point B. You jump and jump and jump and fail and fail and fail until suddenly one of the jumps makes it for no apparent reason. The game's world is hatefully inconsistent.

My solution is to read the walkthrough so I can concentrate on beating shit up. The puzzles are stupid anyway.

The second glaring problem with the game is the save system. There really isn't one. You get four lives to get through each area. Die four times, and you do the whole thing again. This by itself is actually enough to put the game down. It's further proof that deep down, CAPCOM hates you. That said, the game is fun in one hour increments. After that, my fingers start to hurt.

I guess I can put it next to Zelda on my shelf, while I work my way through Ratchet and Clank: Up Your Arsenal.

Posted by psu at 10:04 PM | Comments (8)

July 17, 2006

Wheels On Fire

by peterb

Tonight I helped a friend change a tire on his car. I was calm, efficient, and helpful, and we got the tire changed in under 10 minutes.

The funny part about this is that I know that if it had been my car, I would have anxiously dithered around for a half hour before working up the will to fix the problem.

Car repair is a talent, and I don't have it. I understand it in theory, but in practice I find that I lack a certain something that makes it practical. Patience, perhaps, or just sheer stamina.

A few years ago I had a motorcycle, a 1982 model Honda CX500. I say "motorcycle," but for those of you who have seen these rhinos, it's really more like a tractor on two wheels. It had a small oil leak, and I noticed it getting worse over time. Eventually, I traced the problem to the crankcase gasket which was rotting away. And, in a fit of optimism, I decided to replace it.

My friend George had a good garage; I had the service manual for the bike. What could possibly go wrong?

In fact, nothing went wrong with the repair. That is, nothing tangible. But there was something ethereal that went sour, and the experience has stayed with me forever.

The gasket I needed to change was on the front of the engine. That means that you can't reasonably just pop the front of the crankcase off. Essentially, I had to completely dismantle the bike to get at the engine, and then I had to dismantle the engine to get at the part I needed to access. Off came the seat, the gas tank. Drain the lines, remove the carburator — so far, that's all pretty easy. From there, things get sort of hazy. Each part was carefully put on the floor in roughly the order I took it apart, with notes to help me get it back together.

Eventually, I replaced the gasket. That part was particularly annoying, because the part of the engine I was putting the gasket under couldn't actually be physically removed without taking the forks off, which I didn't want to do. So I had to perform the operation with acrobatic contortions. But perform it I did. The gasket was on.

Then, I turned around.

Spread out before me on the floor were several hundred parts, ranging in size from large to miniscule. My clever organizational system seemed like a vanished mirage.

The prospect of bringing my bike back to life seemed as unlikely as that of resurrecting a frog after dissecting it in Junior High School. I felt anxious. I started breathing fast. A thought entered my head, and I couldn't help myself: I said, out loud, "I will never be able to put these pieces back together in a million years. I can't do it."

At that point, George walked in to the garage. He didn't say anything. He just pulled up a chair, and read his book, and sat there. "George, there's no fucking way I can put this bike back together, man." He looked up. "Sure you can. Just start at the end and work your way back. You can do it."

That, it turns out, was all the help I needed. I started at the end, and worked my way back, and although the sun had gone down and it was way past the time that all decent people had gone to bed, my two-wheeled tractor was back together, and running.

For some reason, changing that tire tonight made me remember that story. I'm not sure why. The interesting thing to me is that everyone has their own comfort zones. I have a cousin who, if he encountered a torn-apart engine, would gleefully jump right in. Conversely, a tangled computer or software problem would aggravate him, but to me that's an exciting mystery. You'd think that car repair and computer repair would be similar enough that people would react the same way to both. But somehow — at least for me, and at least on the emotional level — they're not.

But I have to admit, during tonight's tire change, I was glad to have had the chance to be George for once.

Posted by peterb at 09:12 PM | Comments (4)

July 13, 2006

Distinguished Peters

by psu and peterb

Recently we have become aware that some readers of the blog have difficulty telling the two Petes, peterb and psu, apart. Here's a handy reference guide for when you have trouble.

peterb: Wannabe Italian poseur.
psu: Wannabe French poseur.

peterb: Pokes fun at himself.
psu: Pokes fun at peterb.

psu: Buys too many videogames and then doesn't play them.
peterb: Buys too many videogames, installs them, and then doesn't play them.

psu: Thinks Cory Doctorow is an insufferable prick.
peterb: Thinks Xeni Jardin is an insufferable prick.

psu: Prefers to buy and not actually play Japanese RPGs.
peterb: Prefers to buy and not actually play Western RPGs.

psu: Enjoys the Tour de France, thinks F1 is stupid after the first five minutes.
peterb: Enjoys F1, thinks the Tour de France is stupid until the last five minutes.

peterb: Can't subscibe to NetFlix because he's too cheap.
psu: Subscribes to NetFlix, but never watches any of the movies.

peterb: Dislikes exercise and the outdoors.
psu: Dislikes exercise and the outdoors, but feels guilty about it.

psu: Thinks peterb's Canon DSLR has lower noise and better JPEGs than his Nikon
peterb: Thinks psu's Nikon DSLR doesn't sound gay like his Canon.

peterb: Likes Chinese food because he is Jewish.
psu: Likes Chinese food because he is Chinese.

Posted by psu and peterb at 06:45 PM | Comments (11)

July 12, 2006

Another Day, Another Bad Game

by psu

I picked up Condemned: Criminal Origins a while back, and gave it another try tonight. This game was written up rather favorably when the 360 launched. Yet more evidence that the gaming press has their head up their collective ass.

Let's list the number of things that this game gets wrong.

1. So dark I have to run with the flashlight 100% of the time. OOOooooo, such creepy atmosphere.

2. Number of different enemy types in the first two hours of gameplay: 1.

3. How combat works in the first two hours of gameplay: hit, hit, block, dodge, hit hit. Next.

4. Control scheme has a sprint button. By sprint, they mean walk. When you aren't sprinting, you move at a snail's pace, noticing the whole time that this room looks just like the previous room. Anyway, to "sprint", you have to click down on the left analog stick while you use it to move around. Brilliant! Or you can try to configure this to be on a trigger. But then you have to click down to block, which makes combat impossible. Way to go.

5. Boring repetitive "evidence collection" mechanics mean it takes you 15 extra minutes to get to the next exposition point.

6. Maps make you run in circles because all areas look exactly the same.

On the up side, you can save anywhere when you get so bored you want to cry.

This leaves the number of titles worth playing on the 360 in the first nine months since launch at a staggering: one and a half (I gave up on Call of Duty).

Maybe I'll go play Half-Life 2 over again under emulation, or just stab myself with a pen.

Posted by psu at 10:37 PM | Comments (7)

July 11, 2006

The Sick-In-Bed Reading List

by peterb

I've been laid up with a bug for the past few days. This, coupled with my recent vacation, has allowed me to catch up on my reading list. Here's what I've been reading recently.

Cory Doctorow, Someone Comes To Town, Someone Leaves Town. Yeah, yeah, I know. Doctorow is a sanctimonious prick on his weblog, but this was actually pretty good. It would have been better if he had just eliminated all the chapters on wireless internet, though. I was probably more inclined to enjoy this book simply because it takes place in my favorite city.

Orson Scott Card, Magic Street. I found the first half of this to be absolutely compelling, and then about midway through, the wind went out of my sails. In the afterword, the author discusses how when he started writing, he didn't know who various mysterious characters "were," in the mythological sense, and then midway through he realized who the archetypes could be, and from that point on writing them got a lot easier. That's the part where I got bored. For a long time, this sort of thing has been underlying my belief that, all things being equal, sequels are bad, because a fictional world is always better when you haven't killed it dead with overexploration. Despite this, Card understands that the underlying essence of fiction is character, and not narrative, and thus this is still worth reading.

Tracy Kidder, The Soul of a New Machine. Some random blogger recommended this, but reading it was too much like work.

Scott Westerfeld, Peeps. There's this webcomic about a library called Unshelved. Every Sunday, he recommends a book. His tastes trend towards sci-fi and fantasy, which is really a shame. Peeps is a take on vampires, with lots of icky description of parasites. The writing was fairly tepid, which was not the case with another Unshelved recommendation...

Lois McMaster Bujold, The Warrior's Apprentice. Yes, it's cheesy sci-fi, but enjoyably tart nonetheless.

John Ledyard, The Last Voyage of Captain Cook. Ledyard was a rake and a roustabout who travelled with Captain James Cook on his ill-fated final voyage. This memoir — parts of which were plagiarized from other works — made for interesting reading, especially paired with Google Earth.

Posted by peterb at 08:56 PM | Comments (10)

July 10, 2006

Advanced Stage Hobbyist Consumption Syndrome

by psu

I've been buying games I probably won't play lately. I should be clear. It's not that I might play them. I won't.

To you, this might seem irrational, even insane. But I recognize that it's the natural progression of my psyche through the stages of my latest hobby of consumption.

Stage 1: Denial

Things always start slow. I tell myself I'm not really interested and don't have the time. For example, I tell myself that a point and shoot is a fine camera, and I don't need the complexity of a real camera. Or, I tell myself that games really aren't worth the time, except every once in a while when the next Half-Life comes along, and besides, I don't have a PC.

This stage can last for a long time, years even, but forces stronger than one's internal resistance will break in. It's inevitable.

Stage 2: Casual

Of course, we all know that eventually I did break down and enter the video game world in earnest. I did so pretty casually. I had a couple of sports games and the odd shooter. My console profile pretty much matched my previous attitudes about computer games.

I tried to make this situation last, but at some level I knew I was doomed. I had been here before too many other times. I had gone from a few Jazz and Classical CDs to a collection of turntables and hundreds of vinyl albums (they were cheap) and later hundreds more CDs. I had gone from no cameras to several "serious" cameras, and a whole darkroom. I knew I was in for more.

Stage 3: Shopping

It's always shopping that does you in. Shopping encapsulates everything the true geek loves about hobbies because at its core it is a game of collecting information. It is no coincidence that the majority of Internet Forum activity is about shopping.

Shopping is insidious because it naturally leads to a situation where you learn more and more about things you do not have. Younger geeks are safer from this, because they do not have the resources to actually go and acquire things they don't have. I spent half my childhood scheming about how I could obtain equipment for amateur astronomy, but I never had the money to buy any of it.

Hobbies for adults are different. We have the money. The march of consumption moves inescapably forward.

Stage 4: Hardcore

The problem with constant consumption is that there is only so much content to consume. Eventually you have to branch out. You can try to collect (say) only classic recordings of old Classical Warhorses, but you'll get tired of that soon and find yourself in 20th century aisles looking at George Crumb records.

With video games, wasn't too hard to plumb the depths of my favorite genres. All you need is to collect one football game and the two shooters that are actually worth playing. Therefore, I was forced to go sideways. First there were the RPGs. I even learned to listen to the crappy voice-overs to get to the good parts of the game. Then there were platform and action games, which I can manage as long as there is an easy mode. Horror games? Check. Novelty adventure titles? Tried that. Artistic Japanese design pieces? Did that.

Soon, I found myself at The Exchange having lost that feeling of constant discovery. Had I really covered everything? The only decent title recently for the Xbox 360 is a ping-pong game. The DS was pretty snazzy for a while, with its lawyer games and surgery sims, but it's really just more of the same old Nintendo being Nintendo.

If new won't do it, the only direction to go is back in time. So I've been picking up older titles that I feel like I should have because of their status in the gaming "literature". These games are important, even if they aren't enjoyable anymore. There are PS1 games, SNES games (emulated on the PS1!) and some older PS2 games (you know, the people in Final Fantasy X just never stop talking). I tried some old PC games under emulation. The chances that I'll actually play most of these games is vanishingly small, but one is compelled to collect. Luckily, I know where this is going.

Stage 5: Jaded

The end of the road is an extended lull. I'll soon find myself sitting on my couch, bored with all the games, but also feeling guilty for being bored with all the games. I will wonder to myself about why I bought that comprehensive collection of historical Japanese samurai games. I'll have to face facts, spend less time with the console, and maybe watch a movie. Life might return to the regular pattern of Halo and Madden, or I might inch through some old platform game involving a cartoon rodent with big guns. Either way, intense enthusiasm will give way to a more jaded sense of balance.

Of course, I could try to keep the ball rolling. There are all those historical consoles I don't own. I do have a spare room in the house that would be a perfect retro game den. Also, I never did find out what all the fuss was about World of Warcraft. I think I have just enough self-respect and inner strength to avoid these fates though.

Instead, the pathological addiction will subside and games will take their rightful place next to the bikes and cameras and vinyl albums. They will be something to enjoy when I feel like enjoying them. They will be one of the many topics on which I can pontificate uselessly for hours. They will be one more activity that keeps me busy when I would otherwise be idle.

Posted by psu at 08:20 PM | Comments (10)

July 06, 2006

Whole Stupid

by psu

For tonight, a rumination on some old news. You may recall that a few weeks ago, Whole Foods announced that it would no longer carry any live lobster and crabs at its fish counters. The reason given for this new policy was that Whole Foods had painstakingly studied every aspect of the live shellfish supply chain, and they decided that it was inhumane.

This is exactly the sort of pudding-brained ethics that makes me glad that there is a Trader Joe's coming to town. At least when they open, I'll be able to find high quality food items without this sort of patronizing bullshit.

There are reasons you might not want to carry live shellfish far away from their natural homes. Maybe such shipping is expensive and therefore you lose too much margin to make it profitable. Maybe sending the stuff half way across the continent puts too much stress on the supply. Maybe they they don't sell enough of the fish outside the local markets to make the enterprise worthwhile. I could understand all of these reasons. But, the supply chain is inhumane?

Let's consider the supply chain for beef. Beef shows up at the store dead. That seems worse. The lobster are also better treated than the poor eel in Japan, where a traditional preparation is to take a live eel and nail it to the cutting board through its skull so that it stays still while you skin it.

Also consider that Whole Foods has no trouble foisting these horrific fake meat products like Tempeh and "I Can't Believe That's not a Thanksgiving Turkey" on an unsuspecting public. That's cruelty on the highest order not only to the poor soy proteins, but also to the poor saps who buy the stuff.

Whole Foods plays a tricky game. They sell more than the product. They also sell the idea that you are a better person for buying the product in their store. But Whole Foods has a large national food distribution network and as such it has many of the same problems as any store that uses a large national food distribution network. The only difference is that part of their sales pitch is that they do not have these problems, and that's not really true.

I think a more truthful picture is that Whole Foods is a high margin retail outlet that brings stuff in from wherever they can get it to your home so you don't have to live in California to get that stuff year 'round. There is nothing wrong with this, but it's a bit disingenuous to do this while preaching the gospel of local food products.

As for me, I'm just sad that I'm losing the last place in Pittsburgh that will sell me an actual live soft-shell crab. I always felt a bit guilty for eating Blue Crabs way out here, far away from where they are fished. But they are tasty enough that once or twice a year didn't seem like much of a sin. Maybe I'll call up our old fish guy Tom Robinson in North Carolina and see if he'd ship me a few on ice.

Posted by psu at 08:44 PM | Comments (19)

July 04, 2006

The Design of Everyday Games

by peterb

I've been playing a lot of Advance Wars lately. It is a perfect little gem of a game, and I'd like to use it to make some points about good game design.

Good game design increases richness, but eliminates complexity. Good game design emphasizes content over form. And, all things being equal, good game design favors mainstream technology over the cutting edge.

I actually travelled back in a time a bit, and played the very first of the series, Famicom Wars for the original Nintendo Entertainment System. It's an instructive comparison. Since that game was introduced in the late 1980s the game mechanics have not changed at all. Nearly everything about the game, except the graphics, is the same. And yet the Advanced Wars games are noticeably more fun than Famicom Wars. Why?

The answer is simple: the latter games are better because they became simpler.

Richness is Good, Complexity is Bad

If you've ever been involved in designing and implementing software, you've participated in the following conversation. Two engineers will disagree about some aspect of how the product should work. Implementing either behavior is easy. Both engineers will present their arguments, and are convinced of the rightness of their position. Neither can convince the other. Eventually — perhaps to avoid further conflict, perhaps just to get the issue behind them — someone will suggest "I've got an idea. How about we just put a knob on the product, and let the user decide which behavior they get."

This is almost always the wrong decision. But often, if all of the engineers are young and inexperienced, and there's no one around to issue a smackdown, knobs like this make it into the final product. The product is made uglier and more complex, the end user is presented with choices that she doesn't care about, and you sell fewer units.

A game is rich when it presents you with a lot of interesting choices to make. A game is complex when it presents you with choices that you don't care about, or when the mechanics of making those choices are intrusive. When designing a game, it's apparently easy to confuse complexity with richness. Richness is a valuable trait in a game. Complexity is the enemy of fun. The ideal game provides a maximum amount of richness with a minimum amount of complexity. Ernest Adams has written about this in some detail.

My favorite recent example of complexity in action would be a game I recently reviewed, Commandos 2. Let's review my description of the UI from that game:

For example, A readies an attack, unless you want to use your fists, in which case you press Q. In the example I gave earlier, the Sapper would use the I key to cut the wires, D to detect mines, click on the mines to retrieve them, and then P to place mines. If the Sapper wanted to place a satchel charge, he uses the B key, but to throw a grenade, he'd hit G (but if his friend the Driver wanted to throw a molotov cocktail, he'd hit S).

It's clear that when develping this title, a large number of tragiocomically poor UI decisions were made. This is a common syndrome in PC games; my working theory is that the developers assign keys to functions early in the production cycle. Then, due to time pressure or thoughtlessness, they never return to ask the question "How should these choices be presented to the user to make the game playable?"

Compare this to the UI in Advance Wars. In that game, to attack with a tank you hit the "A" button. To assault a city with infantry, however, you hit the "A" button. To launch an air assault against enemy bombers, you hit the "A" button, but contrariwise to use your own bomber to bombard enemy troops, you hit the "A" button. The odd man out here is shelling with artillery. I always keep a cheat sheet handy for that one; you have to remember to hit the "A" button.

One reason that Advance Wars has a better UI is that the constraints of the console require it: there's simply a limit to the amount of user interface inanity one can have when you've got only 4 buttons, a joypad, and a few triggers. This isn't to say that all console games are better than all PC games, or that PC games can't have a good UI (in fact, the core mechanics of Panzer General are very similar to those of Advance Wars). It's just that since PC-based games can have needlessly baroque UIs, the realities of schedules and software development tell us that they sometimes will.

The take-away lesson for software developers, I think, is this: in terms of user interaction design, unless you have a damn good reason to do otherwise, design your game as if it will be targeted at a Gameboy Advance. Protect richness, but destroy, annihilate, and eliminate complexity as if you are Genghis Khan. You provide richness in a game by increasing the number of interesting choices the player has to make. Complexity, on the other hand, is created by making it harder to make those choices, or by hiding the interesting choices in a sea of boring ones. Richness is a virtue. Complexity is just retarded.

Content Trumps Form

Returning to Advance Wars for a moment, the difference between it and its predecessors is clear: the maps are smaller. The battles are smaller. Concepts are introduced a few at a time. Yes, there are a few "systemic" improvements, such as the introduction of fog of war, but those improvements aren't used on every map.

In other words, the main difference between the earlier and later games is not that the latter games have better mechanics, but that the latter games have better content.

The importance of this can't be overstated. Let's look at one of my favorite genres, the RPG, specifically the Baldur's Gate series. When Bioware (and later Black Isle) poured time and energy into improving the content, they ended up with Baldur's Gate II and Planescape: Torment, two of the most emotionally engaging and memorable RPGs of their era. When Bioware poured the same amount of time and energy into the "system," they ended up with Neverwinter Nights, which for all of its bells and whistles is fundamentally, a scriptable multiplayer 3D mechanism for delivering hollow and empty experiences to players. There are things I like about Neverwinter. But an hour of Torment is better than 100 hours of Neverwinter Nights.

Conversely, the NWN engine only became usable with Knights of the Old Republic, a game that focused on content to the exclusion of everything else, and which took much of the user-visible flexibility of the NWN engine and tossed it out the window, strictly limiting what the user could do (for example, restricting the extent to which the user could reposition the camera).

We can see the same dichotomy in the Diablo family of games. Blizzard delivered Diablo II, which was more or less the exact same game as the first Diablo but with more plot and more items, and created one of the best selling games of all time. Microsoft delivered Dungeon Siege, emphasizing all of the improved features of their engine, and nobody — except, ironically, modders — cared.

There are groups of users — hardcore gamers, and modders — who care about the details of your game engine. But the average player just wants to be entertained. It's great that I can buy a DVD with a director's commentary on it talking about what camera, film stock, and lighting was used to make a certain shot. But we'd think any studio that put a discussion of that on a poster was unwise. If you find that you can't explain to the public why your game is worth playing without resorting to talking about the underlying technology, then you have lost.

The Cutting Edge is for Bleeders

Diablo II was the top-selling game of its era. When you look at the other games that were released in 2000 that didn't make enough money for their creators to roll around naked on huge piles of gold, an interesting observation can be made: from a purely technological standpoint, Diablo II was primitive. No true 3D rendering, for example.

The fact that Diablo was "primitive" and the fact that it sold 8 hojillion copies are related: it meant that anyone, even people with a somewhat out-of-date computer, could buy it and play it. Furthermore, Diablo II had longevity: as people realized that it played well, it continued to sell like hotcakes over the life of the product. This is atypical; your typical "best seller" game, like a hot movie, sells well when it is released and then declines over time. If you, as a game designer, are absolutely convinced that you have to design a turn-based strategy game that requires an eight-CPU system with a thousand-dollar videocard to play well, I can't stop you. But the lesson of Diablo II shouldn't be missed.

Sometimes, it's true, being on the cutting edge can make the difference between selling a game and not selling it; World of Warcraft is a great example of a game where the content and technology combine to create something greater than the sum of its parts. But the cutting edge, as they say, is also the bleeding edge, and being on it has two important side-effects: it reduces the size of the market you are selling to, and it increases the risk that you will ship garbage, or not ship at all. If your game doesn't require cutting edge features, then you're assuming risk in your schedule for an uncertain payoff.

As a hardcore PC gamer, I have a soft spot in my heart for the bleeding edge. Many of us remember the first time we saw Doom, and we instinctively want to root for companies that push the edge of the envelope. But for every game that pushes the envelope and succeeds, there are 10 painful, timewasting flops. Don't be one of those: unless you have an absolutely compelling product requirement to not run well on 90% of your customers' machines, use mature, well-tested technology for your game.

The Payoff

These are what I see as the main problems facing modern PC games: first, too much complexity, particularly in user interfaces. Next, there is too much design focus on form, and not enough on content. Lastly, games often use cutting edge technology for no sensible reason. In discussing them, I've sometimes phrased the payoff for developers and publishers in terms of sales. But that's just a crude approximation of the real issue: I'm a PC gamer. I want to play your games. I can't play your games if they suck. There is too much competition from too many other forms of entertainment for me to waste my life downloading the latest "Detonator" drivers to try to eke out another 1.5% framerate improvement in your product. I want to spend my brain power figuring out how to circumvallate Vercingetorix at Alesia, not trying to understand why in the world the developer thought I needed to use one keyboard command to move my Hastatii and a completely different one to move my Principes.

One final note, in closing. I've been using Advance Wars as my example throughout because it is a Game Boy Advance game. This handheld console, which has sold about 100 million units, is essentially a repackaged Super Nintendo system. In other words, the best turn-based strategy game on the market was created with technology that dates from 1990. Keep that in mind when sitting down to create the product requirements for your next game.

Not every game is a strategy game, but every game has to maintain a balance between richness and complexity. If your game isn't as good as it should be, maybe you shouldn't be asking yourself what you can add.

Maybe you should be asking yourself what you can cut.

Thanks to Peter Su and Nat Lanza for their suggestions on this article. The title was inspired by Donald Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things.

Posted by peterb at 10:39 AM | Comments (8)

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